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Making a change: pursuing purpose

In my previous blog I wrote about the complexity of the self; the seemingly incongruous confluence of character traits and behaviours that make me me. Similarly, our life journeys are also messy. Not a linear journey from A to B, but rather analogous to a tree. One which branches in a range of different directions and ways, some we can predict and curate others entirely unexpected.

I also think of life as a pie chart, made up of lots of different segments – family and friendships, paid or voluntary work, hobbies, education, chores/admin. The time we can and/or choose to dedicate to each segment varies by day, week, month and by year. Sometimes work comprises a huge piece of the pie, and at other times family or education might be the dominant segments. As hard as I try, I’m not sure its ever possible to give equal weight – time, and energy to each portion of the pie.

So how do we make decisions about what path to take, where to invest our time and what direction to travel?

My insights often come from both self-reflection and listening to podcasts. My audio of choice on this particular day was an old friend, endurance athlete and all-round great guy Gordo Byrn. Gordo was being interviewed by another person that I’m honoured to know, Rich Roll. The conversation (which you can find in all its glory here) was expansive, fascinating and thought provoking.

At one point the pair were discussing the concept of lifestyle change, and how one might know that the time is right to change direction, and in what direction to then travel. Gordo’s opinion, para-phrasing, was that you feel a “tickle in your gut.”

Change. Something we all experience. Something we must all navigate.

It may be imposed on us, or a process that we ourselves instigate.

But what process underpins a change in direction; the journeying along different paths; the pivots in prioritisation? And is there a trunk that provides stability and holds all those branches of our life tree together?

In contemplating these questions, I personally rewound the clock to my childhood self: to the bookish, academic child with a passion for philanthropy and a grandiose desire to help ‘make the world a better place.’ The young person whose father, on dropping her off at university, advised her to “seize every opportunity and make your mark on the world for all the right reasons.” The 18-year-old who didn't pay much attention to those words at the time, but later drew on them as her guide.

After graduating from my BSc, I decided to pursue a career as a solicitor. Before commencing the law conversation course and a job with a corporate law firm in London, I decided to travel for a year. It was all mapped out. Or so I thought.

My travels began in Africa, where - for the first time - I really opened my eyes and saw deprivation and abject poverty. Not only that, I witnessed first-hand the beauty of the world, power of community, for gratitude and for resilience, of people and of the environment.

It ignited a fire in me – rekindling that desire to help drive positive change. But also precipitated lots of questions as I pondered whether a career in corporate law was actually the right path for me. In helping me process these thoughts, a friend, Jude, gave me some simple words of advice. “Look deep inside yourself and work out what your passion and purpose really is.”

In other words, feel and listen to ‘the tickle’.

It sounds simple and easy, doesn’t it? But I had to admit, in my 18 years on this earth, I had never yet done what Jude had suggested.

I felt a calling to change direction. But what was the root of that calling, and what direction should I go?

The answer lay in my ‘why’, my purpose – or in Buddhist teaching – the dharma. It’s not a destination as such, more like a north star that provides a direction of travel or an anchor to keep you steadfast.

Reflecting back, it was the need to align my life with my ‘why’ that provided the impetus to change direction; in this instance in my chosen career path.

But how do you know what truly matters to you? What your purpose is?

My journey took me the best part of a year. I read a lot around subjects that interested me. I talked to trusted sounding boards including friends, family and even my old university lecturer. I gained experience working for a number of law firms in Australia. I poured my thoughts into my journal. I started walking (what would become my segue into running) which gave me space to think and meditate. I remained curious and exploratory and threw myself into different experiences and environments to see what did or didn't light a spark or fuel a fire.

Most importantly I tried to listen deeply to my intuition – to that ‘tickle’. We can write long lists of pros and cons. We can deliberate and contemplate, but, ultimately, I think deep down maybe we just know. We feel the pull to change when we are not living life which aligns with our values, and our ultimate purpose.

(Sometimes when I am trying to choose what path to take, I project to an imaginary future where I have actually made a decision either way and listen to how that makes me feel. If my heart sinks it’s my gut advising me that something isn’t right).

It dawned on me that my ‘why’ had been so astutely articulated by my father all those years ago; one informed by the golden thread of philanthropy that weaved through my childhood years. This revelation also gave me pause for thought. Why, then, had I chosen a career in law?

I realised that I was following a path that I felt was expected of me. I sought the label, the identity, the validation that I believed a corporate career in the city would give. I guess in retrospect I was trying to conform and perform, rather than actually living my authentic life.

It was a ‘tickle’ which slowly consolidated in a clarity of purpose and direction.

Instead of law I settled on an entirely different route, embarking on an MA in Development Studies. Of course, I am acutely aware of my privilege in being able to enact such a change – millions don’t have this luxury.

Looking back, this was the first - of what would become many times - that I had chosen to grow a new branch of my life tree.

In the words of one of America’s greatest soccer players, Abby Wambach (her book The Wolfpack and her Commencement speech are constant sources of inspiration), I stopped being Red Riding Hood and stepped off the path – not only did I step off the path started carving out a new one.

A leap. A change - prompted by, and anchored around, my ‘why’.

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